By Kim Constantinesco
For one particular group of athletes, life doesn’t begin when they reach the end of their comfort zone. It begins when they go into survival mode.
The honorable Ironman, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2 run, is well known at this point in time.
The Ultraman World Championships, however, isn’t so widely known, and for very good reason: It’s still the only known endurance race to be free from endorsements, commercial sponsorships, cameras, reporters, and even a trophy. Yet, the racers who compete on the Big Island of Hawaii every year travel the greatest distances for a quiet kind of glory.
The race is an Ironman on steroids: a 6.2-mile ocean swim, a 261.4-mile bike ride, and a 52.4-mile run, all to be completed over the course of three days. The first day consists of the swim, followed by a 90-mile bike ride. The second day features the 171.4 remaining miles of bike portion. The final day shines the light on burning quads and fragile psyches as athletes navigate a double marathon.
The first person to come across the finish line receives a hug from race director, Jane Bockus. So do the rest of the 40 or so finishers. It’s a much appreciated embrace, and even craved like water at certain points along the course, but it’s a fleeting badge of honor. Or is it really fleeting?
The Outer Space of Mileage
Pushing through miles upon miles since 1983, the athletes and volunteers who make the pilgrimage to Hawaii, to have perhaps one of the greatest internal battles with themselves, must embody the spirit of the race and the Hawaiian culture: Aloha (love), Ohana (family), and Kokua (help).
Without knowledge and appreciation of these values, forget not being allowed to sign on the dotted line of race forms, they likely won’t be able to finish the race.
“I think more impressive than the guys that go out there and run a 6:30 double marathon are the people that will break bones in their feet, have their toenails fall off, or they’ll be urinating blood, and they’ll just keep going. They totally go into survival mode,” Jim Gourley said.
Gourley is an endurance journalist and author of recently released The Race Within: Passion, Courage, and sacrifice at the Ultraman Triathlon. He followed the under-the-radar race to get a sense of its origins, how and why it has survived, and what drives the athletes to participate. From the end of the 2012 Ultraman to the 2013 race, he not only got to know how the athletes train, but he got to know their stories rather intimately.
The thing that drives these athletes, according to Gourley, is their insatiable appetite for exploration.
“I call them astronauts,” Gourley said. “They’re physiological astronauts because they’re doing something very extreme and dangerous, but they’re driven to do it because they want to know what’s out there. It’s an exploration every time. No matter how many times you go out there and run that race, you’re going to have a bad day. It happens to everybody. I think a lot of them are actually looking for that bad day and saying, ‘Okay, what’s going to happen if my toenail falls off? How am I going to deal with that?’ That’s what they’re looking for.”
A Continuum of ‘Crazy’
From outsiders, they’re called crazy, ridiculous, out-of-their-mind. The athletes who partake in Ultraman, however, are as sane as the people doing it on television for money.
“I don’t think you can use the word ‘crazy,’ and here’s why,” Gourley said. “They go for a 6.2 mile swim at the beginning of that race. People think that’s a crazy distance, but they’re only going to do it that one day. They go for three, four, and five-mile swims in training, but not that frequently. Michael Phelps swims 10 miles a day every day of the year, and he’s doing it in a pool, just looking down at that black line. Who’s crazy?”
Whether crazy or not, Dr. Suess once said, “Being crazy isn’t enough.”
The Ultraman can be just as taxing for volunteers and the support crew. It’s said to “peel us like an onion” taking all involved down to the core and showing it to them.
“I think it goes back to that survival/astronaut/explorer experience because you’re sort of out there all on your own,” Gourley said. “The people in the crews know the athletes are relying on them. It’s an extreme bond.”
If anything is crazy about the race, it’s the near instantaneous human connection that results.
Former Ultraman and U.S. Navy officer Curtis Tyler explained it to Gourley.
“My father and I hugged, and people thought that was strange, but it’s an important tradition among the Hawaiian people known as honi. It is the exchange of the ha, the breath of life. One person breathes out and you breathe in their ha, then you breathe out. In that way, you share their essence. We show that we’re prepared to share all of each other, both the pretty and the ugly.” (From The Race Within)
Hugging at the Ultraman is as guaranteed as blisters on the feet.
Loving What You Do
For a community as closely knit as Ultraman, Gourley got caught up in it, too.
“It’s often very emotional to see these people endure,” Gourley said.
As a triathlete himself, who has completed several Ironmans, Gourley could step into the shoes of the athletes.
“I got into triathlons at a difficult time in my life,” Gourley said. “Just participating in it was good therapy for me. I had just finished my second tour to Iraq. I was in the Army. It didn’t go well for me to put it mildly, so getting lost out on the roads and riding my bike for hours at a time was good medicine.”
Gourley’s crisis was rather personal. He was into Ultra-endurance cycling, but as he was working on The Race Within, he started examining his own ability on the bike in relation to Ultraman cyclists.
“I said, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever be as good at cycling and do the kinds of distances I want to do. I just don’t like it enough,'” Gourley said. “One day, I put my bike back up on the rack and I stopped riding it. I said, ‘I’m sick of this. I’m not getting any better at it. I don’t know why. I’m reading the training books, and I’m trying to do it. I think it’s just natural talent.’ I moped about it for several months. I got kind of hung up on how do you get good at stuff? No matter what you do. I just marveled at the athletes and what they can do. What I learned by the end of the book is they didn’t care whether they got better at it. They just improve as a result of loving what they do, and they do it constantly.”
Gouley came to the conclusion that for him, writing is what biking is to the athletes in Ultraman. He’s a talented writer because he loves it and he’s willing to stay up until 2:00 a.m. on a regular basis.
All the more reason to pick up a copy of The Race Within.
Who knows. That’s probably why comfort zones expand, too.